Medical Malpractice Survey: Litigation’s Toll on Doctors

It isn’t a surprise that malpractice lawsuits can wreak long-term financial and emotional havoc on physicians, but it helps to put into perspective just how detrimental the experience of being sued can be.

Medscape's Medical Malpractice Report for 2015, “Why Most Doctors Get Sued,” is a telling survey of almost 4000 primary care physicians and selected specialists. The survey goes into detail on such areas as physicians’ lawsuit history, their way of coping with malpractice stress, and the long-term effects on their practice.

The survey reveals findings that every physician should be aware of:

  • Fifty-nine percent of survey respondents have been named in at least one malpractice suit. While some specialties are more vulnerable than others — 85 percent of ob/gyns and 83 percent of surgeons reported being named in a suit — no doctors are immune. Medscape’s survey echoes a 2010 AMA study that reported 61% of all physicians had been sued by late career.
  • The very thought of being sued stalks many physicians. More than half (54 percent) of respondents who had been named in a lawsuit admitted that the threat of another affects them either always or almost all the time. Nineteen percent said they were rarely bothered, and just one percent were never bothered by the potential of a lawsuit.
  • Seventy percent of those physicians who had been sued said they were “surprised” when it happened. As common as medical malpractice suits are, physicians are still prone to thinking “It will never happen to me.”

When asked about the experience of being sued, 26 percent of male doctors and 37 percent of female doctors said it was “horrible” and “one of the worst experiences of my life.” An additional 20 percent of men and women doctors alike said the experience was “very bad, disruptive and humiliating.”

The survey also backs up another very few important aspect of malpractice stress: Very few suits are resolved in the plaintiff’s favor. It is the experience of being sued — rather than its outcome — that physicians must prepare for. Dr. Marc Siegel, an internist, author and professor of medicine at New York University’s Langone Medical Center, says it best:

"Doctors do win the vast majority of lawsuits, but… courts are unpredictable, and the stress of being sued — with years of depositions, worry, and damage to your reputation — is a devastating experience, even if there's no payment to the patient."

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